Culture Matters: Are Chinese and Asians Liars?


Entrepreneurs may not probably pay more attention to culture in doing business at home. But once they interact with foreign partners or expand their business abroad to avail of the benefits of globalization, they would probably discover that culture matters in understanding “the truth” behind the ethical behavior and facial expression of foreigners in a cross-cultural setting. This cultural sensitivity is particularly important in doing business abroad in order to know whether the person you’re transacting with is telling the truth or lying. Telling the truth or saying and/or doing what is exactly in one’s mind is crucial in doing business. Wrong information can lead to financial loss or bankruptcy. In this sense, an anthropological understanding of the culture of the targeted market is a must for the CEOs and managers of the investing company or multinational firm to guide their business management and marketing strategy in a foreign country.


Giving Wrong Information is not Always Lying in Asian Culture

There is no doubt that Asia-Pacific is the largest and fast growing regional economy in the world today. This region includes largely the emerging economies of East and Southeast Asian countries. China is the largest economy of this region with a growing market which can surpass that of the United States and Europe. In fact, the World Bank has predicted that China will surpass the U.S. as the number one economy in the world in 2020’s or earlier. Aside from China, the members of the ASEAN countries are also important emerging economies of the region.Thus, investors who intend to do business in East and Southeast Asia must have a sufficient background of how Asians and  Chinese communicate the truth in social interaction and business deals.

In global business, entrepreneurs and managers must avoid using solely their cultural standards and judge other people’s cultures as inferior. This attitude is called in the social sciences as ethnocentricism, and, in the moral sense, a “self-centered” attitude which does not recognize the diversity of cultures around the world. The right attitude must be cultural relativism, a recognition that one culture is as good as the other and that each person has his/her own culture, which must be recognized and respected whether in ordinary social conversations or business deals. Take a look at this one account with regard to Chinese lying:


” I first read about the habit of Chinese people lying in my travel books but didn’t pay much. Coming to China was an overload on the senses. However, I had not long to wait before my first brush with the dishonesty of most Chinese. Three days after I arrived, I met my boss to sign a contract. Before I had come to China, we had agreed by email on a salary of 4,500 RMB for the first three months of work and 5,000 RMB for every month worked after that. When we got to talking about the contract, he suddenly informed me that he would have to offer me a lower salary because I was short, thin and not white. Therefore, it would be hard to contract me out to teach in schools. I initially protested but seeing that he was firm, I bargained and was awarded a salary of around 3,900 RMB for the first 3 months and 4,400 after, and my salary was not a flat salary anymore but based instead on the number of hours I worked each month…. Later, my boss didn’t even respect that contract and paid me less during the holidays, and then I was forced to sign a new contract altogether for even less money”[1].

Is his boss lying? Well, from the point of view of this employee, the Chinese employer was obviously lying since he changed his mind as well as the contract several times. He did not tell the truth that the salary as originally agreed upon would change. If the employee is socialized in American culture which values truthfulness and individual rationality, the Chinese employer is obviously lying. But on the part of the employer, this may not be considered as lying. This has something to do with the hierarchy of cultural values. Chinese in the mainland China, like their Asian counterparts, value more the community, “what others would say” rather “what  one says.” The above account gives the reason why the employer changed his mind and lower the salary: ” because “I was short, thin and not white.” In other words, employer was probably more concerned of the effect of his presence to the community because his physical defects. The employer must have anticipating  some negative social  effects or reactions from the local Chinese community which values more “saving one’s face” in social interaction rather than telling the “truth.


Thus, what constitutes lying in one country or region may not be lying in other parts of the world. But telling the truth is not always the most important consideration in Asian culture especially if it conflicts with other higher cultural values such communal honor or harmony. Japan has one of the most underdeveloped legal systems in the world because the Japanese prefer a peaceful amicable settlement of legal cases rather than engaging in the Western-inspired court room drama which conflicts with their cultural value of communal harmony. Vietnamese would also avoid public confrontation and show their disapproval in public. They even put a smile even if they disagree with someone in a public conversation. They don’t usually show it in their word or face but in their action. For the West, this expression can be considered lying as the external behavior does not indicate what is in the mind of the speaker. For Filipinos, when rejecting an invitation, they don’t directly tell the inviting party with a  straight “No!” but indirectly using euphemistic language such “I will try” in order not to hurt the feelings of the person inviting.


Asians generally do not appreciate people who are “brutally honest” or who want to get to the point quickly. Unlike the Western culture, the number one rule in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, is to save one’s face in public and not to lose one’s cool in conversation. Shouting or arguing in public are strictly frowned upon; causing a scene actually makes bystanders to lose face through embarrassment. Although frustrating, staying always patient and calm until both parties reach a resolution — even if a small compromise must be made [1].

 Final Reminder


Avoid ethnocentricism or immediately label people as liars especially in Asian cultural context.When an American or European talks or makes a deal with a Chinese or Asian, they must first anticipate its probable effect or social consequences. The Chinese or Asian may immediately say “yes” or agree to a business proposal. But his/her action may later change if it can affect his/her social standing in the community. Always remember that in Asian culture “saving one’s face” is more important to than “telling the truth” in Western standards.

Although in the West, people tend to appreciate those who are “brutally honest” or who get to the point quickly, the opposite holds true in Asia. “[T]he concept of “saving face” guides daily life in Asia. Causing someone to “lose face”– even if done on accident — is an infraction rarely forgiven [2]. When  Westerners do business with Chinese and Asians, cultural awareness and openness to diversity of cultures must be a priority, remembering  always that “things are not what they seem” culturally.

Respect Cultural Diversity:


Photo credit: www.

Thank you for reading this revised article which first appeared in my LinkedIn account. Feel free to comment or ask questions! You’re also welcome to subscribe this blog! Best wishes!

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